Saturday, March 9, 2013

How does one love the unlovable? (Reflections on the Parable of the Prodigal Son, on the 4th Sunday of Lent, Luke 15:1-3,11-32)

One of the things that I’m certain caught the attention of most of us this past week was a paper, supposedly written by a number of academics and intellectuals, criticizing the work of the late Teresa of Calcutta on behalf of the poor. The basic thesis of their critique was that given the amount of money she and her religious community had collected over the years, the Missionaries of Charity should have been able to put up better health care facilities for the sick and destitute they were caring for. Instead, according to the opinion of these critics, most of their facilities were poorly-equipped and whose overall condition left much to be desired. It was ultimately another attempt, so common in today’s overly-journalistic approach even to some of the most complex realities and events, to “simplify”, “demythologize” and “demystify” the work of one who, to both Christian and non-Christian alike, was unarguably a genuine symbol of all that is good, noble, and true in humanity.
There were responses for and against the article, of course. One writer, obviously a supporter of the good Mother Teresa had done, wrote in her blog: “To all the Mother Teresa haters: if you don't like her, that's your right and I respect it. But please, do not waste all this time writing studies or articles on her that have no other value than being controversial enough to be published. Pick your battles. Surely there are a lot worse people than her in this world who deserve your energy!”
“Surely there are a lot worse people than her” – reading that line, all I could think of were the writers of the critique itself. What could be worse than trying to tarnish the reputation of someone who had done so much good, even if this were supposedly being done in the name of thorough investigation and laying bare the truth? I received, in fact, an email from a lay friend with the query: “What do you say to people like that?” Another friend asked, “How does one deal with such people who seem only to see the bad and the ugly in things?”
We’ve surely all had such encounters; and they’re not even really bad persons, but rather generally good people who sometimes (or perhaps often) do things that simply aren’t pleasant, that are undesirable, even downright bad. Would that every person we encounter were not only pleasant, but actually kind and truly good; alas, such is never going to be the case, not always at least. So how must we see those who are tough to love, or even like?
I’ve always taught my students that “loving the poor and needy”, the “least among our brothers and sisters” can never be separated from our love and worship of God, at least if the latter were to be authentic and acceptable to Christ who said as much to his followers. But I’ve also never failed to caution them that “there is nothing romantic about poverty”, and that it has been one of my most humbling realizations that many times, the real tragedy of poverty is precisely that those who are poor, lose their dignity as persons because they are poor, because their lack and their need lead them at times to do things which they would most likely not do if they weren’t in so much want.
Many years ago, as a newly-ordained and perhaps too idealistic priest, I tried my best to be of help to anyone and everyone who came to me or was brought to me with some financial need. I will never forget this young couple whom the guards at the seminary brought to me one afternoon. They looked very poor, and had with them a little boy, no more than three years old, he seemed to me. He was pale, paper-white almost, had a rather bloated stomach and had a colostomy bag attached to his side. “They live in a shack in the nearby cemetery”, the guard told me. “What can I do for you?” I asked. “We just need money for his medications, father”, came the father’s reply. They said they needed a couple hundred pesos and showed me a prescription from a doctor, dated a few months back.
I felt truly sorry for the boy, and so thought that instead of simply giving them money, that I could help them get medical care and attention for their son. “I have some former classmates who are doctors”, I said. “Why don’t I give you my phone number; call me up this coming weekend, and I’ll do my best to arrange something so your son can get some serious medical help”. “But we need the money now, father”, the mother jumped right in. “I’ll give you something for your son's medication today”, I replied. “But make sure you call me this weekend, as I will be making arrangements for my friends to take a look at him and see what they can do to help”. I took out some cash from my wallet, handed it over to the father, and bade them goodbye.
I never heard from them, or saw them again. I did make the phone calls, I did make the arrangements. But they simply never came back. Later, one of the priests at the seminary told me that the same couple had been seen at a nearby parish, doing the same thing. Apparently, it was their M.O. I felt bad of course; I really wanted to help their son. Besides, there's nothing’s worse than wanting to help and then realizing you’ve just been had, especially by persons for whom you’ve actually felt tremendous compassion and pity. Sadly, it wasn’t the last time it happened; for every person who came to me with a real need, there would be another who was simply out to con me. Trying to figure out who was being sincere and truly needed help and who wasn’t, always proved tricky.
We must love the poor and needy, that is true; Jesus asked us to do that, and it is the only litmus test of authentic faith, in this life and in the next. But we must never romanticize this love, for in truth, there are those, even among the poor who are “closest to God’s heart”, who are difficult to love. And yet we must love them still. But what of those who aren't the "difficult-to-love" poor, but simply "difficult-to-deal-with" persons? All of us have known and dealt with some of them.
I very much enjoy teaching, and I've become used to the fact that at the beginning of every term, I face the prospect of starting anew. I have to once again start with another group of students to whose capacities and character, I have to adjust, even though every so often, I do find myself literally infuriated with some attitudes they show in class. Awhile back, one of my students at university, a relatively smart, and ordinarily polite and pleasant young man, raised his hand while his classmates were narrating personal stories—which I had asked them to do, so that those whose voice I never hear, might actually be able to participate.
I thought the young man had his own story to share. Instead, he says before the entire class, “Could we move on, I think we’ve pretty much said everything we need to say about this point.” It wasn’t just myself that was taken aback by the lack of respect not just for myself as professor but for his classmates, and I could sense the other students felt it as well. My first impulse was naturally to get up, and put him in his place. (And I’ve had that impulse so many times in the 15 years I’ve taught college, and even graduate students). Mercifully, I managed to keep that impulse in check. It would not have been good for the other students, especially the more timid ones, who may then become fearful of ever speaking in class if I had blown my top. And it would not have been good for the young man himself, who would surely have been embarrassed before his peers. (And though a colleague insists that some students might actually benefit from that experience, images of myself being a know-it-all who managed to annoy some of my own professors when I myself was in school flashed before my eyes.)
How does one show patience to those who would probably be better off being “put in their place”? How does one show kindness to those who are to us, unkind? How does one show generosity to those who are selfish? How does one show care for those who do not seem deserving of it? How does one love those who are difficult to love?
Too often, when the story of the Prodigal Son is read at Mass, focus is placed on the son who ran away, squandered his inheritance, and then realized the error of his ways and repented. Now while that is certainly a very important angle in the gospel, it isn’t necessarily the most important one. For the chief character of the gospel isn’t the sinful son, nor even the elder brother, the good son who stayed behind and was always faithful and obedient. Rather, the true focus and hero of the story is the forgiving and compassionate Father who runs to greet the son who has returned, and who stands by him, not because he is worthy, but precisely because he is not. It’s the father who identifies with him, not because he is good and pleasant, but precisely because he isn’t.
I have come not to call the righteous, but sinners”, Jesus says. It would certainly be a lot easier to dislike, perhaps even to show little or no kindness, mercy, compassion, and love, to those who are difficult, to those who make things hard for us, to those whom we feel do not deserve our love. That certainly was the reaction of the older brother in the parable, and he had every reason to feel and react the way he did. Look,”  he says to his father, “all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends. But when your son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.” Why, indeed, should we show kindness, even love and forgiveness, to those whom we may feel, do not deserve it?
It is perhaps one of the most remarkable things about the Christian story—something that makes it different from many other incarnation stories to be found in a lot of other religions, both past and present—that the Christian God chooses to incarnate and reveal himself, not in the manner by which deities of other religions are said to do so: in the form of beauty and perfection (as we see in the gods and goddesses of the ancient Greeks) or in power and wealth (as we see in the deities of other near eastern religions).
The Christian God was made incarnate in a poor and powerless child, associated himself with those at the very edges of acceptable society, then dies a most ignominious death, as a criminal, nailed to a cross in between two thieves, some of his last recorded words, spoken to console and comfort one who to many would be judged most undeserving of such. It is the way of God, the Father who is always willing to forgive, to run to a difficult-to-love son who has found his way back. It is the way of Christ who gave his life as a ransom for ours, we who from time to time, are ourselves, difficult-to-love, because of our weaknesses, because of our failures, because of our sins.
How does one love the unlovable? With much difficulty, with tremendous self-will, with great sacrifice, at times, even with a lot of pain and suffering. Yet love him we must, for it is only by doing so that we come to the full realization that it is the only true path towards truly loving that which oftentimes is the most difficult to genuinely love.
It was in embracing the leper, an outcast of humanity, that Francis of Assisi was able to come face to face, to embrace with true love and acceptance, his own inner turmoil and pain, thereby becoming—in the words of Paul in the second reading—“a new creation in Christ”. (2Cor. 5:17) “Be compassionate, as your heavenly father is compassionate”, Jesus tells us; and we have to obey. Because there will be moments in our lives when we will discover and realize, that the most difficult person to show compassion to, to forgive, to accept, and even to love, is none other than ourselves.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)